The first View-Master in the late 1930s wasn’t meant to be children’s toy. A Portland, Oregon, organ-maker and photographer named William Gruber was fascinated with a Victorian optical device known as a stereoscope, which created an illusion of 3-D using two side-by-side photographs. Gruber had the idea to mass-produce a portable stereoscope, using new Kodachrome color film, which could be held in one’s hands.

While Gruber was touring the nearby attraction Oregon Caves National Park, he met Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Inc., a company that specialized in souvenir picture postcards. Graves asked Gruber why he was using two cameras strapped together, and so Gruber explained the invention he was working on. Graves said he’d love to help produce and sell this idea, but he could only offer Gruber a share of the profits.

Graves and Gruber debuted the View-Master to the public at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York, where it was sold as a souvenir of the event. Afterward, they sold the devices at specialty photography and stationery stores, and the reels depicted scenes from national parks like the Grand Canyon and other gorgeous landscapes around the United States. These early reels, which came in a gold envelope, are dark blue with a gold sticker and what appears to be hand-lettering. In 1941, more than 100,000 stores offered View-Masters.

When the United States entered World War II in 1942, the government commissioned millions of View-Master reels from Sawyer’s to teach servicemen how to identify airplanes and ships within shooting range. These reels tend to be tan with a blue stamp. Because paper was rationed during the war, these came in a variety of front-and-back paper combinations like tan with blue, tan with white, or marbleized.

Thanks to the publicity from the war effort, View-Master was so well known by the mid-'40s, the company didn’t have to advertise them. Before View-Master had a contract with Disney, Sawyer’s would re-create scenes from animated films like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” using 3-D clay tabletop models.

Then, in 1951, Sawyer’s bought out one of View-Master’s competitors, Tru-Vue, and gained the license to all of Walt Disney’s characters. After the agreement, View-Master could use cel-style drawings from the actual films. Suddenly, the device had tremendous kid appeal, and movies and TV characters became a staple of the View-Master line. “Captain Kangaroo,” “Pinky Lee,” the original “Mouseketeers,” Roy Rogers, Flipper, and The Monkees have all been recorded on these reels.

In 1955, View-Master introduced three-reel packets, which often came with storybooks, and began phasing single reels out. That same year, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California...

During the '50s, when 3-D movies were all the rage, View-Masters would be placed in movie-theater lobbies, loaded with preview reels of upcoming features. Moviegoers would look through the viewers to get a taste of 3-D films like “House of Wax” with Vincent Price, “They Called Him Hondo,” with John Wayne, and “It Came From Outer Space.” Only 29 films were previewed this way, and so these reels are now hot items for collectors. A “House of Wax” reel recently sold for more than $300.

Sawyer’s, View-Master’s parent company, was purchased by General Aniline and Film Corporation, or G.A.F., in 1966. G.A.F. pushed through several View-Master innovations, including the “talking” View-Master and View-Master projectors. The 1969 Apollo moon landing was also depicted in a View-Master reel.

Often failed TV shows would end up as View-Master reels, and these include “The Smith Family” starring Henry Fonda, “Korg 70,000 B.C.,” "Apple’s Way,” “Julia,” and “Isis.” But the cult TV shows of the '60s like “Lost in Space, “The Munsters,” and “The Addams Family” are particularly popular with collectors now.

The View-Master dipped in popularity in the '70s, and around 1980, Arnold Thaler acquired the rights to View-Master, creating the View-Master International company. Later, he purchased the Ideal Toy Company and merged View-Master into that toy line. Tyco Toys purchased the company in 1989, and in 1997, Tyco was swallowed up by Mattel, which branded the View-Master under Fisher-Price. In 1999, the View-Master was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.

At this point, more than 1.5 billion View-Master reels have been produced. The delightful thing about View-Master is that the size and shape of the reels have never changed, nor has the basic function of the viewer. Each paper reel has 14 slides that create seven images, so any reel in decent condition, no matter how old it is, can be viewed through any View-Master.

Reels made between 1960 and 1963 often have a “blistering” or “bubbling” effect on the paper that occurred in manufacturing. However, the real concern for collectors is if the film is damaged or missing, which can render a reel worthless.

Most View-Masters viewers are remarkably common, and so only the earliest models, like Model A and Model B, have any value on the market. The blue-and-brown Model Bs are particularly scarce. Model D is coveted because it’s the only viewer in the line with a focusing feature. The black Bakelite Model C, however, has proven indestructible, and therefore, is easy to find.

Some collectors focus exclusively on View-Master products. But they often themselves in fierce competition with character collectors who snatch up anything related to Mickey Mouse, Barbie, Batman, or so on.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

20th Century Stereo Viewers

20th Century Stereo Viewers

Remember the View-Master you had as a kid? Check out all the hundreds of cool-looking variations you never knew exi… [read review or visit site]

View-Master Resource

View-Master Resource

While many people think of View-Masters as toys, Eddie Bowers, who runs View-Master Resource, clearly considers the… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Sawyers View Master Lot With Two Viewers And Case Well Over 100 Reels Vintage Viewmaster Gaf Slide Set - "tin-tin Explorers On The Moon", SealedAntique Vintage Wood Stereoscope & 27 View Cards Stereo Viewer100 View-master Single Reels Various SubjectsView-master - Succulent Plants - 20 Reels In Original Box - 1947Sawyer's View-master & Large Lot Of Reels With Original Box 1940sVintage 40's Sawyer's View Master Viewmaster With Box, 2 Booklets And 7 Reels Stereoscope Stereo Viewer Stereopticon Antique + 3 Universal Photo CardsAntique Vintage Underwood Sun Sculpture 3d Stereo Viewer Stereoscope 1900's11 Vintage Viewmaster Sets Seaquarium Vatican Atlanta27 Complete Packaged Viewmaster Reels 18 Single Reels 2 Mail Order FormsVintage Viewmaster 3d Picture Reel Lot 60 + Historic Landmarks Cities 1940s Lot Of 40 Assorted View-master Reels: Reels! No Duplicates, No Red TintingGaf Viewmaster Lighted 3d Viewer With Storage Box And 5 Sets Of Reels 1970'sVintage Viewmaster - Box Of 100 Pamphlets Superman, Spiderman Grizley AdamsLot Of 109 Sawyers Vintage 1940's-1950's View Master Viewmaster Reels Plus ListsHuge Lot 1940's-60's Viewmaster 36 +/- Sets & 76 Single Vacationland & LandmarksLarge Vintage View Master Viewers + Reels Lot 3 Viewers + 39 Slides Disney +more6 Vintage Viewmaster Reel Sets Of California San Diego Francisco Seaworld MuirEarly Factory Defect Blue Gold Foil View-master Reel 106 Rainier Nat’l Park*1983 Rainbow Brite View-master Complete Set* Original & Sealed Packaging*rare 1981 Batman View-master Pack Reels Set*50's Sawyers Deluxe Lighted Viewmaster Gift Pak W/accysVintage 1950's Realist Green Button 3d Stereo Viewer Tested NiceKings Island-cincinnati, Ohio-view Master Reel Packet- No. H-15, "sealed"-"rare"5 Vintage Gaf Talking View-master Reels Vintage 1970 Automobile Racing Gaf View Master B948Vintage View Master Lot - Reels, Catalogs, Sawyers, Talking Viewer, Travel & New1956 Viewmaster Disneyland #5 Tomorrowland 3 Reel Packet #855-a B C Wdp New Nip View-master Disney Pixar 3d Toy Story 3 3ct Reels Fisher Price 2010Vintage View Master Vintage Sawyer's Viewmaster Reel LotLot Of All (15) 1950's Disneyland View Master Reels ~ 851 Thru 851 (a,b,c)1957 Viewmaster Wonderful Wizard Of Oz 3 Reel Packet & Booklet #ft-45 A B CVintage Viewmaster Gaf 3 Real / 21 Image Slide Set - Sword In The Stone, SealedThe Muppets ~ 1979 Scenes From Jim Henson's Muppet Movie View-master ReelsView-master Reels, 7qty, Including Star Trek, Tarzan And Others!Vintage Sawyer's View-master, Brown With BoxSawyers View-master Stereo Pictures A 649 New York City 3 Reels CollectableView Master Slides Lot The Partridge Family, Dark Shadows, Niagara Falls, MickeyVintage Viewmaster 3d Picture Reel Lot Of 20 Fairy Tales 1950s Some Booklets 50+ Vintage View Master Reels And 2 Viewers Old Disney Casper Lassie Kiddles+nr Lot Of 6 View-master Packets Sawyer's Gaf Varied Conditions /cartoons & MoreVintage Viewmaster Lot 21 Reels, 2 Viewers, Travel , Batman, Little Mermaid1956 Viewmaster Disneyland #1 Main Street Usa 3 Reel Packet #851-a B C Wdp Original Mint Unused 6 Viewmaster Personal Stereo Reel Mounts With Envelopes*1985 Jim Henson's Muppet Babies View-master Reels Complete Set*Vintage Viewmaster Gaf 21 Image Slide Set - Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer8 X Scarce View-master 14 Scene Vintage Disney Photo Reels (unusual, Non-stereo)Lot View-master Reels Yu-gi-oh! Spngebob Toy Story Mucha Lucha Veggietales +++Basic Fun View-master Viewmaster Miniature Keyring Toy~used*vintage 1970s Golden Book Favorites View-master Set* Reels & Booklet SealedView Master Old Estate Sale LotsVintage 1947 Viewmaster Projector 2 Dimensional Viewer Model S-1Viewmaster Reels~b671~automobile Racing~exc. Cond.~1960's~w/ Booklet~lemans Etc.Viewmaster - Princess Margaret's Wedding - Scarce Edition, Includes Booklet1956 Viewmaster Disneyland #4 Fantasyland 3 Reel Packet #854-a B C Wdp Vintage Sawyer's View-master Standard Projector Bakelite No. 2421, Works WellVintage New York City View-master 3 Reel Set10 Disneyland View-master Retro Vintage Reels 70 3d Stereo Photos All Different